Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Putting the Pieces Together

''Lebanon is more than a country - it is a message.'' So said the Pope when he visited Beirut in 1997, as the country was picking up the pieces of civil war and its way towards peaceful coexistence. ''A country of many religious faiths, Lebanon has shown that these different faiths can live together in peace, brotherhood and cooperation.''

Since then, Hariri's assassination, the 2006 war with Israel, and the recent murder of General Francois Hajj - tipped to become head of the army as part of the effort to resolve Lebanon's presidential impasse - have strained that metaphor to breaking point. But its relevance remains.

If Christians, Sunnis, Shia, Druse, and Jewish people cannot live in peace in Lebanon - where they have coexisted for millennia - what hope is there for the modern multicultural state, where doctrines of ethno-natural unity are increasingly challenged (the far right would say 'undermined') by migration and labour mobility?

Prior to this, my first trip to Lebanon, I would have been equally sceptical . Constant reference to sectarian tension across the media over the past few months seemed to point to the fact that these people simply couldn't live together, despite the best efforts of an elite political class to find consensus. Yet on arrival I found that the opposite is true.

Most people I met, from all sides of the religious spectrum, agreed they couldn't trust their politicians and that it is foreign interference, not personal grievance, which is responsible for much of the tension. Many also point to the quota system, whereby posts are parcelled out by politicians on strict sectarian lines, as a major factor in discouraging national unity. Change, they believe, can only come from the bottom up when citizens - tired of war, enmity and insecurity - take on their leaders and demand a fresh start.

It has worked before. Mass demonstrations following the murder of former PM Rafik Hariri, where sixty percent of the country, largely peacefully, picketed the parliament - leaving only young children, the elderly, and infirm at home - forced the Syrians out. And although Damascus' influence still hangs over the country, popular protest has largely delegitimised it.

I wouldn't want to speak too soon on the Lebanese situation. As my travelling companion pointed out, you only start to understand Lebanon once you realise how complicated the whole country is. However I do believe, from my brief exposure to its form of multiculturalism, that this country can give Europe some pointers when it comes to countering the recent upsurge in support for extreme right ideologies.
From what I was told, Lebanon's problems stem from politicisation of difference in the aftermath of Ottoman occupation, both during the French protectorat where Christians were given the upper hand, and post-independence, as part of the struggle over who had the right to claim the country for its respective tradition.

Conversely, the rise of racism and xenophobia in Europe is linked to the perceived threat to our dominant cultural norms by recent immigrants, be these norms secular - as is the case in France - or religious. Whether it's bans on Christmas nativity plays or bans on headscarves, there's a war being fought on our continent on whose sensitivities win the day. Yet one thing we have not realised -that the Lebanese have, after decades of fruitless civil war - is that there can be no winner in these stand offs.

We can - and they did - argue long and hard about who has the 'right' to dominant cultural expression but if we cannot recognise the diversity that exists on the ground (much of which, in Europe's case, was simply airbrushed out of the history books for the fiction of national unity in the face of minority cultures ) then we will never reach a resolution to current problems.

With time, Britain absorbed the Angles, the Saxons, the Picts, the Vikings, the Normans and the Danes. It welcomed Jews, Irish and Italians who now fit seemlessly into our understanding of who we, the British people, are. Why should we not expect the same from the cultures of recent migrants, while acknowledging that it will take a while for the rough edges to be smoothed through cultural acclimatisation?

The Lebanese example does not show sects mixing to the point of homogeneity - as Europe's integrationists, and many policy makers, increasingly demand. It does not demand an iron secularism, that precludes religious debate, for nowhere is religion a stronger force than in this tiny territory. Equally, experience of war exposes the pretence of the extreme right that the majority can simply exercise an iron fist over the minority and 'send them all back home' without a measure of violent payback.

With 12% of Europe's population of migrant descent, and growing, we are well past the point where people should seriously be entertaining old ethno-national ideas of cultural supremacy. But we are. A 2004 poll revealed that 33% of Europeans consider themselves racist, yet Europe needs migrants like never before to support its growth and social services in the face of population decline. Why? One reason must be the propensity for our leaders, like the Lebanese, to use these problems to their own advantage and create electoral dividends.

When people like you and me stop simply listening to media scaremongering, and go out and meet our neighbours, learn to understand their differences, and start to treat them as human beings, then - and only then - will we find the kind of solutions we can all learn to live with.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Work Worries

Here's a query....what do you do when you have too much work and too little time?

a) cancel your weekend to do it - in this case an all expenses paid trip to a conference in Beirut?

b) do as much as you can, take the plane, turn the phone off - and deal with the fall out upon your return?

c) admit as much to the boss - then when he tells you it's gotta be done before Monday, offer to resign in the hope that not doing it in time isn't worth the hassle of replacing you??!

Phone lines open now! Amusing anecdotes welcomed

Monday, 10 December 2007

To Greet or Not to Greet?

Christmas Cards. A time honoured way of keeping in touch. An opportunity to send out some festive cheer at an otherwise gloomy time of year. A chance to donate to charity without buying fair trade products you never really wanted.

An ecological disaster??

Think about it. All that paper produced, then discarded. All those postal miles involved with their atendent emissions (unless you're using a pigeon or the services of a friendly group of Boy Scouts who run around your neighbourhood with a satchel). All that money wasted on disposable goods.
Is this the kind of social institution the ecologically-minded should partake in at Christmas? After all, religious festivals are times when we should be thinking more about our values, and how to exercise them in daily life, not simply abandoning them to conventions.

There are many who resolve this dilemma by way of 'e-greetings'. These can be all singing, all dancing affairs, that let you deal with all your pesky friends and relatives in one batch mailing. And at little, or no, expense. But somehow, it's not quite the same.

Now, I don't think I am being overly sentimental or nostalgic here. It's just that the effect is in direct proportion to the effort involved. Just ask any lobbyist. That's human nature.
If someone remembers you, puts in the effort to find your current address, and scribbles a personal greeting on paper (especially given how little we hand-write anything these days!), it makes the world seem a better, friendlier, more considerate place. It'll sit on the mantlepiece for weeks, be read and re-read, maybe even stored away as a mark of human warmth.

If someone sends the same mass greeting to everyone they've ever met it will be opened and deleted without the same magic ingredient - remembrance. It's intangible, ephemeral, lacking in personal thought. So, in a curious way, not only does it not convey its purported 'best wishes' but it acts as a reminderof all that is lacking in many human relationships. Others seem remote, distant, cold. And that is most certainly not the message of Christmas, let alone the intention of the average sender.
Christmas is one of the few times we really take the trouble to remember friends and family. That's why we need to continue to take the trouble to show them we care. And the less virtual communication involved, the better. After all, it's only once a year folks. And if you really don't want to send a card? Make a phone call or pay them a visit instead ;)

Friday, 7 December 2007

Join the Fight Against 'Inactive Women'

I've long maintained that, despite its ostensible focus on individualism, our society is becoming increasingly one-dimensional and conformist.

One casualty of the capitalist-materialist world in which we live is that the family, indeed, human relations in general, is paid little more than lip service by policy makers who view life exclusively in economic terms.

People are no longer treated as citizens but workers, taxpayers and consumers who matter, if at all, only in terms of their productivity and spending power. Little attention is paid to what other factors are necessary for a pleasant, fulfilling, and ultimately ethical, stay on this planet of ours.

Thus people are educated not so they can gain knowledge, insight, or creativity but so they do not place a burden on the state. Innovation is important not to improve lives but so we can produce more, faster, than ever before. Witness so-called labour saving devices, which, far from giving us more time for leisure and family, simply allow us to spend more hours in the office.

People must keep healthy not so they can profit more from life but so they can work harder. Of course, if they are so foolish as to smoke, or to get old, then they must accept being treated as human trash for which our economy (read society) no longer has any use.

It is clear that the 'government machine' is more interested in perfecting its various systems - the prison system, the education system, the health system - sorry, 'service' - than responding to the real and varied needs of human beings.

This is disturbing because it means that citizens have gone from being the ideological end, to the means, of democratic government. Ministers are more interested in managing the systems in place than rethinking them in terms of what citizens actually want.

That wouldn't be so bad European States claimed to be feudal oligarchies instead of liberal democracies - then we would all understand the deal. But we are simultaneously proferred the illusion of political choice by parties whose policies are little different and no real means of changing anything.

What if I don't want to live in an atomistic, selfish, and material society where consumer goods are prioritised - for example - above social relations and solidarity. What if I don't want to live in a society where I only really exist if I am young, pretty and dynamic? What happens if I don't want to live in a society where the old, infirm, disabled or simply dumb, are sidelined? Where everyone must conform - or be discarded.

No-one is spared this relentless economisation (if that's indeed a word). Witness a recent European Commission press release which pointed the finger at all the inactive women out there who are sacrificing their economic prime to - gasp - raise their children, look after their parents, and get an education.

Not surprisingly, the UK won the war against 'inactive women' before anyone else. That is the predictable legacy of Thatcherite policies that cut welfare for (single) mothers and force children into full-time schooling at the age of three. Compared to our near neighbour Ireland, where 30% of women are 'inactive' due to family responsiblities, the figure in Britain is only 1.9%.

However I fail to see why this should be a blueprint for the rest of Europe to follow. A few more statistics are necessary to see why. Britain has the lowest productivity and job security on the continent - surely no coincidence. British kids are the most depressed in Europe according to recent OECD figures, have the lowest educational attainment in the EU, and are most likely to take drugs and be involved in knife crime.

Perhaps it's time we stopped taking such a reductive attitude towards work-life balance. It is not good enough just to shove as many people as possible into professions. It is also necessary to raise non-dysfunctional children into a society where people can once again learn to take responsibility for their local community, environment, and yes, occasionally, their own family.

Not that this should be too prescriptive. I am a firm believer in the fact that what works for one, will not necessarily work for all. But people should be given a real choice, and a real voice, when it comes to determining the priorities that drive our society, and indeed, their own lives. Forcing all women into the workplace is as violent a violation of our rights as the Victorian practice of forcing us to stay at home with our children.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Customer Service, Belgian Style

I have done a number of posts in the past about Belgium's peculiar attitude towards the customer. And the stories just keep on coming.

Not only does customer service, as the Western World knows it, simply not exist here but I'd be surprised if Belgians were even aware of the concept.

What we have instead is some kind of proto-Soviet attitude that means the service provider is doing YOU a favour, rather than the other way round. This is partly because monopolies are still such a part of life here. Every commune is linked to a specific gas, electricity, or cable company so you either go through them, or go without.

As such, I find myself having to visit friends in a different commune to watch BBC 2 which is unavailable in Ixelles, but available over the road in Etterbeek. No one has yet taken me up on my offer to let them watch Rai 2, Italy's answer to the BBC, featuring semi-naked girls in cages and endless chat-shows.

Rather less surprisingly, this attitude is firmly engrained in the so-called public services. Now I cannot really argue with transport in this country. Trains run on time, there are eco-trams galore, and nothing is too expensive. However they are rather less than flexible.

Witness a recent train trip I took to Ypres with a friend to visit the World War One Battlefields. I arrived, somewhat late, at the platform and she had bought the ticket in advance. I say ticket because, despite asking for 'deux aller-retour' both our names were on the one piece of paper. No problem, I thought to myself, we'll sort this out later.

That evening, after our tour, we returned to the station. I would just like to point out that Ypres 's main income derives from the countless Brits, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who come to see the trenches and cemeteries for themselves.

So when I approached the station attendant I was a little surprised to note that his English was rather patchy. I intimated the problem, accompanied by lots of ticket waving and pointing. Two people, one ticket, I mimed. I want to leave now (the train was about to pull up), she wants to leave three hours later, after the last post is played at the Menin gate.

"No problem", he said, "that will be 7 euros 90". I was taken aback. "But I've already paid for my ticket", I said. Thinking he hadn't understood the first time, I pointed out that we didn't want to travel together. "OK, then, he said, that'll be 7 euros 90". Frustrated, I raised my voice, at which point his English, rather conveniently, disappeared altogether.

I tried again in French. After all, the Flemish are always praised for their linguistic aptitude and it is an official language of Belgium, after all. He replied in Dutch. Language Politics - what a nightmare.

The train drew out of the station. I paid my seven euros and went to the bar.

It's Another Case of Blair versus Brown

People say politics these days is all style over substance. After a decade of Smiler's spin, followed by Blair-lite Cameron, it seemed that what we all craved, what we all longed for, was a little more content. Apparently we overestimated ourselves. But is that such a bad thing?

First Ming the Merciless, the Liberal Democrats elder statesman, went the way of the Dodo because he was deemed too old and uncharismatic to revive the Party's flagging fortunes. Now Brown the Steady, torchbearer of reason and responsible policy making back in the dark days of Tony's wars of religion, has become something of a national liability.

The media cites incompetence. But I'm hard pressed to see how the mistakes of an Inland Revenue underling in Newcastle, or under-funded political rivals, can really be blamed on the Prime Minister, even if he had known about them at some level. And they certainly needn't have spiralled so far out of control.

Gordon Brown's problem is not so much what happened but how he handled it. Tony Blair managed to cause civil war in Iraq, sell honours for cash, and make parents pay thousands for their child's education and he still survived.

Politicians make a hash of things all the time. That comes as no surprise. All the public expects from them, I suppose, is a modicum of sleek professionalism when it comes to handling difficulties. Some convincing spin to lend style, polish, and coherence to even the most preposterous of situations.

Why? Because no one likes to watch leaders losing control of a situation, however much they might enjoy backbiting. Indeed we almost admire it, a politician who can rise to the challenge, shrug off his opponents with a pointed quip, and stare down adversity - even when he is in the wrong.

"Making chaos out of order" as Vince Cable MP described it the other day, is the worst of politics' cardinal sins precisely because it reinforces the public's worst fear that life, the world, and everything, is infinitely more chaotic and unmanageable than we dare admit.

We expect politicians to reassure us with at least the semblance of order, in the same way that we expect political ideologies and manifestos to give us the semblance of choice and control. When either becomes unstuck we are faced with the fact that politics is largely a matter of amateur guesswork rather than the science of government.

So when it comes to the contest between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne I know who I' m going to vote for. Up until yesterday, when I attended the hustings in the European Parliament, I was convinced Huhne was my man. He has ideas, writes well, comes to the point. An original thinker, a new departure, a man capable of reconciling social liberals and economic liberals? So it looked on paper.

In the flesh however, I was struck by the feeling there was no real contest. While Huhne is clearly capable of providing the Party with the intellectual thrust it needs he doesn't seem to have the empathy, engagement, or conviction to sell his ideas - and make others believe in them. It was like he had simply memorised his briefing and trotted it out, with a couple of compulsory 'human interest' stories thrown in, when he was in fact the leading force behind much new Party policy.

Nick Clegg, by contrast, whose Leadership campaign stole most of its ideas from other Members, and who doesn't seem to be at the cutting edge of Lib Dem policy making (if such a thing exists) came across as ideologically involved and believable. He had heart, charisma, humour in abundance. And by combining these with some intelligent, well-balanced responses, managed to win over an audience which had previously seemed quite evenly split.

That is not to say either would be a bad choice. They are both very capable people who, in my opinion, stand head and shoulders above the Iron Chancellor and Chameleon Cameron. But seeing them together in a room reminded me of nothing less than Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And for all his faults, Blair's decade-long premiership gives me hope that Clegg, rather than Huhne, has the capacity to lift my party from the doldrums and restore its credibility amongst the wider public, just as Blair did Labour's. That's why he'll now get my vote for Leader.